Women and ADHD writer’s block: a crash course

From time to time, I suffer from a terrible side effect of ADHD — not of ADHD medication, but of attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder itself. It is highly destructive, perhaps especially for women, and it has a name: ADHD writer’s block.

Girl-with-pen-in-hand-writing

What is ADHD writer’s block, you ask? Well, first you have to understand the science behind ADHD. Now, full disclosure: What I am about to tell you *may* not actually be correct. You see, even though I’m confident that the cause I’m going to provide is right, so far, it’s politically correct just to say ADHD is thought to have that etiology. I know in my bones this explanation is accurate, and I’m pretty sure scientists haven’t thrown their weight behind it definitively only because they’re terrified they’ll turn out to be wrong. Still, this should not be taken as credible medical advice. Having said that, the primary source of ADHD is almost definitely, in a word, dopamine — or rather lack thereof. I think Jessica McCabe explains it best:

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that’s part of the reward system in our brain. We do a thing; we get a hit of dopamine; we feel good. The problem is, in ADHD brains, there aren’t as many dopamine receptors as there are in the average brain. We kind of have to flood our brain with dopamine to feel the effects. You’ve heard of heat-seeking missiles? We are dopamine-seeking missiles.

The kicker is that estrogen modulates dopamine systems. According to a November 1988 article in the New York Times, “In two studies involving 200 women … the women performed better on tasks involving verbal skill or muscular coordination when estrogen levels were high than they did when the levels were low.” In other words, the higher your estrogen levels, the higher your dopamine levels; and the higher your dopamine levels, the stronger your verbal acuity. Thus, women are left experiencing heightened difficulty expressing themselves, both in conversation and in writing, during certain times in their monthly menstrual cycle and throughout their lives. 

During a bout of ADHD writer’s block, I, for one, feel tremendous amounts of frustration. I cannot overstate how aggravating it is to have half-formed brilliant ideas floating around in your head, but then be unable even to start typing when it comes time to write them down. Sometimes snatches of individual sentences will flit in and out of my mind, but when I set out to complete them and commit them to paper (well, to WordPress, anyway), they come out as gobbledygook, or worse, they don’t come out at all. This was a dangerous game for my brain to play with me back in grad school when I would need to write multiple-page papers on very imminent deadlines. And if you’re a professional writer, like me, it can actually put your career in jeopardy. Not to mention, it’s just plain annoying!

OK, great. But what are we supposed to do about it? Is there even anything to do about it? The answer, fortunately, is yes, there is:

Coffee.

As Devon Frye explains,

Caffeine is most commonly used to overcome sleepiness and increase productivity; in some people with ADHD, it’s thought to combat common symptoms like distractibility and inattention in the same way that stimulant medications do. […] Caffeine works by stimulating the autonomic nervous system — responsible for regulating heart rate and other involuntary bodily functions like digestion. In the brain, caffeine stimulates the release of certain neurotransmitters, like dopamine, and blocks the absorption of others, like adenosine — a chemical linked to sleep and relaxation.

So, there you have it. I usually am able to get my writing work done thanks to caffeine* — caffeine delivered in coffee form, that is. Personally, I get the most potent benefits from a regular coffee drink such as a Starbucks Grande Caramel Frappuccino (100 milligrams of caffeine) with an added shot of espresso (about 64 mg caffeine) thrown in. Of course, your mileage may vary. After all, I’m pretty sure I have the severest ADHD in literally (yes, literally, literally) the whole world; you may need less caffeine to achieve the same effects.

Coffee-with-pen-and-paper

In any case, after about 15 minutes of intermittent sipping, I’ll suddenly notice myself finishing incomplete thoughts and finding the language that will enable me to evoke them. Now, that’s my kind of ‘java-script!’


*For the record, coffee is not the only palliative for ADHD writer’s block. More suggestions on how to combat ADHD writer’s block can be found in Beth Harvey’s February 2016 post on her blog Smart Girls with ADHD.

Is Twitter the next big thing in ADHD diagnosis?

anna-demianenko-12400 (2)

Yesterday, I received my daily Google Alert email update for the search terms “attention deficit.” I’ve had this set up for several years, but I must admit, I don’t often check it; I can offer no better excuse than that it is rather hard to keep abreast of daily news about attention deficit if you suffer chronically from it. In any case, this time, something compelled me to read through the headlines compiled in the email, and one caught my attention (no pun intended): “Searching for ADHD in a Million Tweets.” It states: 

After analyzing 1.3 million tweets written by nearly 1,400 Twitter users, researchers at the University of Pennsylvania have created a machine learning model that can predict which of the site’s users are affected by attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). […] Researchers monitored Twitter users with self-reported ADHD, comparing them to a set written by age- and gender-matched controls. The team then used various machine learning models to search for patterns in the two sets of tweets.

It might come as a surprise to you, my readers, but I must say, I find the whole thing terribly problematic. Why? Because it fails to take into account the fact that there are as many manifestations of ADHD as people living with it. The effects of ADHD in the life of one person may be entirely different from that of another.

For example, Lyle Ungar, one of the study co-authors, was quoted as saying, “I didn’t realize how common it was for patients to use marijuana to treat their symptoms, so you see people talking more about dope and weed.” But in contrast to these ADHDers, I avoid pot like the plague, not wanting to be any more dumbed down than I already am.

Meanwhile, according to the abstract of the article accompanying the research, published Nov. 8 in the Journal of Attention Disorders, “Users with ADHD are found to be less agreeable, more open, to post more often, and to use more negations, hedging, and swear words. Posts are suggestive of themes of emotional dysregulation, self-criticism, substance abuse, and exhaustion.” It seems to me the way these results have been reported is liable to reify negative stereotypes associated with ADHD. 

ADHD: not ‘one-size-fits-all’

I commend anyone wishing to shed light on ADHD, which after all is still arcane to most people who neither live with it or know someone who does. Also, for the record, I’m well aware of the inherent value of the internet, and social media, in particular, having minored in communication studies as an undergrad at the University of Oregon.

Even so, this research is misguided. It assumes there is one, and only one, kind of life ADHDers live, regardless of gender identity, socioeconomic status, race, etc. 

True, some health outcomes are more likely for people with ADHD. Depression, eating disorders, and self-injury are among a slew of comorbidities, or co-occurring conditions, in ADHD women, for instance. But therein lies the salient point: These aspects are common in ADHD women, specifically. As Devon Frye notes in a blog post on ADDitude, “men with ADHD are more likely to have substance-abuse problems while women with ADHD are more likely to have personality or mood disorders.”

Thinking outside the ADHD box

Cat-out-of-a-box

Far from demarginalizing ADHDers, the reasoning driving this research homogenizes the ADHD experience. I love the idea of a group of researchers at an Ivy-League institution setting out to make things easier for people who may have ADHD. This is especially so because Ungar has said while ADHD is less well studied than conditions like depression, “Understanding the components that people have or don’t have, the range of coping mechanisms that people use all leads to a better understanding of the condition.”

What we really need

What people with ADHD — those who have been diagnosed with it, those who suspect they have it, and especially, perhaps, those who live with it unknowingly — really need is for the medical community to realize there is no one, singular ADHD experience.

Yes, this does make it harder to single out people who are likely to have undiagnosed, and thus, untreated ADHD. Yes, this does mean there would need to be a concerted effort to map all tweets from studied ADHDers, and not just those that appear so frequently as to be acceptable to make generalizations about said ADHDers.

But the effect — newfound insight into ADHD in all its countless iterations — would be well worth it.